INDIA / 5 min read

Uncultivated greens: reawakening forgotten food traditionS
సాగుచెయ్యని ఆకుకూరలు: మరుగున పడిన భూఆధార ఆహార సాంప్రదాయ పునరుజ్జీవన
Weeds, the Cinderella of plants, may hold the key to rural economic development and food security
Photography
Writing
Sarjapura, India

Foraging uncultivated greens is a tradition woven through the fabric of India’s food system. Changes in land use, agricultural practices, and lifestyles have slowly led to its decline. The sudden disappearance of systems that carry these traditional practices threatens to erase generations of knowledge that support local biodiversity and food culture.  Sarjapura Curries has championed these foraging practices, unraveling the layers that make up this complex tradition of uncultivated greens.

Southeast of Bangalore, Sarjapura's green areas are a green gold mine for the local forager community. A ragi field or finger millet (as pictured here) can be home to dozens of wild species that a trained eye can recognize, collect and cook into delicious recipes. Species include anne soppu or cockscomb (Celosia argentea), uttareni or devil's horsewhip (Achyranthes aspera), and chenchal koora (Digera muricata).

The Story of Sarjapura Curries

It was ten years ago on a hot summer afternoon in Telangana when Satyamma, my mentor, took me to gather gangabai kura or purslane (Portulaca oleracea), which she later cooked into a delicious lentil curry with millet bread. As I ate, I noticed the succulent leaves of the gangabai kura melting into the lentils, imparting a slightly tangy flavor. As she foraged greens under the scorching heat, I vividly remember Satyamma’s description of traditional summer menus showcasing gangabai kura‘s ability to cool the body. It was my first time eating greens that I knew as weeds. This marked the beginning of my journey to forage for the many cousins of these uncultivated greens.

Ten years later, I was standing in Sarjapura. Surrounded by buildings and high-tech farms, Sharda Teacher and Suresh were foraging for anne soppu or cockscomb (Celosia argentea), uttareni or devil’s horsewhip (Achyranthes Aspera), and chenchal koora (Digera muricata) from the ragi (finger millet, eleusine coracana). Every year from July to September, Sharda visits the ragi farm to forage for uncultivated greens. As Sharda forages, she generously shares knowledge about the various medicinal properties of the plants and their heirloom recipes. She adds her harvest to her sambar, a South-Indian lentil-based stew, or cooks berike soppu. As September arrives, the ragi grass grows taller, making the fields inaccessible. Like Sharda and Satyamma, many women in the Southern states of India practice foraging. Land-based food traditions are integral to their culture. Today, urbanization and conventional farming seriously threaten this age-old practice.

Before the millet gets too high, Sharda, a teacher, inspects the fields to gather the delicious herbs growing in the same fields. The leaves of chenchal koora (in the picture) are a great addition to her Sambar, the lentil-based vegetable stew that's a staple on every South Indian table.
Foraging is passed from generation to generation by women like Satyamma. She taught me how to recognize and cook my first wild herbs, and made me realize how much value can be hidden behind what we call "weed."

Sharda, along with other women near Sarjapura, are part of a local initiative run by Suresh, called Sarjapura Curries. The small border town of Sarjapura hosts a diversity of languages influenced by the surrounding states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh. Just twenty-three kilometers from Bangalore, South India’s fastest-growing city, Sarjapura has witnessed rampant urbanization in the last decade. As you travel towards Sarjapura, your eyes are met with an uncommon sight in the Indian landscape – the horizon of industrial complexes, dotted with lush green farmlands; the latter of which are disappearing. It is in this chaotic backdrop that Suresh is reawakening the tradition of foraging uncultivated greens.

Suresh Kumar is a visual artist and ecological pioneer in his native village near Sarjapur, in the outskirts of Bangalore. He is the founder of ‘Sarjapur Curries’, which he created to educate his community on foraging and growing seasonal and medicinal varieties of greens.

Sarjapura Curries began as a manifestation of various events in Suresh’s life. As a traveling artist, Suresh would return home to his daughter, who was often in poor health. As he looked for healthy foods to heal his daughter, the guilt of losing his late mother’s recipes of uncultivated greens led him to start Sarjapura Curries. Suresh had watched his community abandon harvesting and cooking uncultivated greens. He began Sarjapura Curries as an art project; involving his community (mostly women), with whom he began documenting and reviving foraging. Today, Suresh grows an acre of diverse native vegetables on rented land. In a landscape fraught with tall buildings and sterile flower, silkworm, and poultry farms, Suresh’s regenerative farm stands out as a dynamic organism. He has successfully returned to traditional integration farming and hosts a multitude of animals ranging from Kadaknath poultry to goats and rabbits. 

When COVID-19 struck India, Suresh began selling his organic produce to customers in Sarjapura and the nearby town Hosur. He offers mixed green bags at the price of thirty rupees. Its contents are uncultivated greens foraged daily from the farm, like the tender shoots and flowers of gourd vines. Pumpkin and bottle gourds create a vast canopy of vines from which he picks. Each bag is an attempt to re-introduce forgotten greens back into local food culture.

Pumpkin sprouts are the tender shoots, tendrils, leaves, and soft stems of pumpkin plants. They are considered a delicacy in many Indian states, but in urban areas, they have lost popularity because of the speed with which they spoil: they should be eaten within one day of harvesting or they will lose their freshness and flavor.
Pumpkin flowers are bright yellow-orange, with a sweet taste and a pumpkin sent. They are rich in vitamin B6 and A. They can be both stir fried or battered with chickpea flour to make fried pakoda, a spiced street food fritter.

“Different communities who live around this region consumed these leaves. Foraged greens have always been part of the diet of the different communities living here. Today they have either forgotten about it or stopped eating it as it is no longer accessible. Tender gourd shoots and flowers require little tending and reduce my labor. I can focus on other aspects of developing the farm and sell these to keep me financially stable,” shares Suresh.

“My work is to inspire the surrounding farmers. It shocks them to see that I can successfully sell tender shoots of pumpkin and other gourd leaves in the market. When they see that uncultivated greens can also be welcomed by the market, they may pick it up and gradually change their views about what they consider ‘waste’.”

- Suresh, ecological pioneer

Sarjapura Curries began as a platform for uncultivated greens reawakening. Today, it practices regenerative agriculture, grows food as communal artwork, and supports local food systems. The region was well irrigated by the surrounding lakes despite the decreasing rates of rainfall. Nearby lakes and fallow land have been encroached upon by the real estate industry. These lakes are the lifeline of the region, providing water for traditional farms. A proposal from the Karnataka state government aims to rejuvenate these lakes with treated sewage water from Bangalore. The project has been well-received by local communities. Suresh, however, believes the project would be detrimental to traditional foraging. He claims that this is the natural cycle of the lake; such that it fills in the monsoon season and dries up in the summer.

In summer, the dried lake bed is host to various vital activities: the desilting and use of the lake bed for farming, livestock grazing, and most importantly, foraging summer greens. The fertile lake bed is a food source for many marginalized communities who depend on common lands for their food. The government’s project will ensure that the lakes remain full throughout the year, interfering with the lake’s natural cycle and its neighboring communities. Filling the lakes with treated sewage water does not address the larger issues of climate change and the overconsumption of resources. The project will only hasten the decline of foraging culture.

Suresh has joined other youth in the region to protest issues related to land use and real estate. Riding around on his decade-old scooter, Suresh shows me different industrialized farms and lakes filled with the sewage water. “People think reviving forgotten foods is only about growing traditional vegetables and selling them. What they don’t realize is that we need constant engagement at every level of the system,” emphasizes Suresh. In this landscape, I began to see the enormity of Suresh’s movement.

Once COVID-19 restrictions ease, Suresh envisions opening a canteen that serves traditional recipes and a weekly organic farmers’ market. He hopes to inspire local farmers to shift to organic farming. He strongly believes the lack of reliable markets for organic produce is a major reason farmers have shifted to commercial farming. In an era in which knowledge systems are being patented at an alarming rate, Suresh gives credit to the women who shared their knowledge with him. “It is all archived in my head, I am just too lazy to document it. It would be great if someone could codify all this knowledge before it ceases to exist,” he says jovially. Making a mental note to revisit Sarjapura Curries to chronicle Suresh’s narratives further, I leave Sarjapura with a bag full of foraged greens and a heart full of inspiration to continue my work reawakening the tradition of uncultivated greens.

Know Your Weeds... and Eat Them Too!

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not been discovered yet or have been forgotten.”

Thinking back on the first time I foraged for gangaibai kura with Satyamma in 2012, I remember how astonished I was to see that something that I considered a “weed” was being harvested and cooked. The flavors of her dish still linger in my memory. To my surprise, I was never able to replicate the dish again. 

Uncultivated greens play an unconventional role in the modern agricultural system, where everything is categorized according to their marketability as opposed to their utility.

Chenchal Kura
Chenchal kura translates to playful. This plant gets its name because of the tiny, pink flowers which depict playfulness. Chenchal kura grows commonly in rocky, drylands of the subcontinent. The tender leaves, shoots and flowers are cooked and consumed.

Botanical name -Digera muricata
Telugu name - Chenchal Kura
Common English name - False amaranthus
Uttareni
A highly medicinal flower, Uttareni plays an important role in herbal folk medicine. Different parts of the plant are ingredients in many traditional medicines especially focused on tooth-related illnesses. Tender leaves of Uttareni are cooked into traditional recipes.

Botanical name - Achyranthes Aspera
Telugu name - Uttareni
Common english name - Prickly Chaff flower
Buddakakara
Buddakakara is famously known for its joint pain healing properties. The tender leaves of the plant are part of various culinary traditions in different states of South India.

Botanical name - Cardiospermum Halicabum
Telugu name - Buddakakara
Common English name - Balloon vine
Anne Soppu
Anne soppu is one of the commonly found uncultivated greens in South India. Known for its shiny white and pink flowers, the greens are foraged widely and added to food during the monsoons and immediate post monsoons.

Botanical name - Celosia argentea
Telugu name - Anne Soppu
Common English name - Celosia
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Photography
Uncultivated Greens

In India, traditional agriculture filled nutritional needs because it was based on mixed cropping. Millets, pulses, oilseeds, vegetables, edible uncultivated greens — all share the same space, water, time, pests, and labor. Yesudas (farmers) used a wide variety of organic techniques including composting, indigenous varieties, crop rotations, intercropping, incorporating legumes, and natural pest control. 

British colonization saw extensive change in agricultural patterns in the Indian Subcontinent. Farmers were compelled to grow cash crops such as cotton, indigo, and opium for export markets, resulting in increased poverty and a reduction in land fertility. Today, though most of the landscape is industrial, you can still find pockets of farms that practice  traditional mixed cropping.

India witnessed the Green Revolution in the 1950s. It changed the way agriculture was approached. Agriculture became associated with chemical fertilizers, agrochemicals, controlled water supply, and mechanization. All of these were seen as a ‘package of practices’ to supersede ‘traditional’ technology and to be adopted as a whole. This shift in agricultural practices introduced the concept of ‘weeds’ to the Indian agricultural landscape. Uncultivated plants, an integral part of the ecosystem of a farm, were seen as ‘unwanted plants’ because they competed with the cultivated plants for their nutrients, sunlight, and water. With the introduction of ‘weeds’ as part of the modern agricultural system, uncultivated greens were seen as a nuisance. This meant the weeds had to be dealt with, and it changed the way uncultivated greens were understood as food.

Herbicides are the sworn enemies of wild biodiversity. They wipe out any plant that comes into contact with them, leaving a desolate landscape that needs time to recover.
Monocultures contribute greatly to the loss of uncultivated greens biodiversity. The constant quest for efficiency leaves no room for wild grasses to grow. Fortunately, nature always finds a way to survive and some of these plants manage to thrive even in cramped urban spaces and sidewalks.

Traditional agriculture in the sub-continent includes foraging uncultivated greens. This is the source of nutrient security for marginalized communities living off the land. According to Suresh, millet farming often follows mixed farming which grows uncultivated greens alongside the main crop. Traditionally, farmers keep the weeds at bay by harvesting the uncultivated greens, adding diversity and value to their kitchens throughout the year. However, as the demand for millet rises, many farmers abandon organic practices and use herbicides on the native vegetative growth. 

Wild edible plants are often used as herbs in folk medicine. They carry both nutrient and medicinal value. In a webinar on uncultivated foods organized by the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), Salome Yesudas notes that the consumption of uncultivated greens delays absorption of carbohydrates and fats, increasing the satiety value. They are equally important for proper bowel function and reducing chronic constipation.

Foraging has always been an act of asserting food sovereignty. It connected the forager to their land, biodiversity, and traditional knowledge. India is witnessing a rise in awareness around wild, uncultivated foods. Various festivals are popping up in celebration. The rise in awareness can be seen as a double-edged sword. An increase in awareness will help us understand the rich biodiversity and food heritage we have; however, we also risk appropriation and over-consumption of these uncultivated foods. 

As the sun sets on the urban horizon, I walk with Suresh through the ragi field, listening to his stories and foraging for tomorrow’s greens. I notice women foraging in the neighboring fields. I feel assured of a revolution rising amongst us, giving us hope for a future where perhaps not all is lost.

Principle
CONSERVATION OF GENETIC AND NATURAL RESOURCES

Conservation of Genetic and Natural Resources

Communities that establish seed banks and conservation practices, can safeguard crops' genetic heritage for generations to come.

Term
HERBICIDEFREE

Herbicide Free

Farming practices that do not involve the use of chemical herbicides to get rid of weeds.

Credits
Thanks to Suresh from Sarjapura Curries, Kaushiek Pranoo for editing and sounding board and Alberto Miti for supporting with chalking out the plan and suggestions.

Special thanks to Sarjapura Curries team, especially Deepa.

I am dedicating this work to the numerous women who took time out of their lives and shared their knowledge about uncultivated greens with me.
Shruti Tharayil

Shruti Tharayil

Writer, Photographer

Shruti Tharayil is a self taught herbalist and founder of the initiative 'Forgotten Greens,' where she shares about the fast disappearing knowledge about the wild edibles that grow in our immediate ecosystem. Shruti has been working on building perspectives towards our complex food system through her projects, Forgotten Greens and Food Ecosystem Project. She has been associated with India Youth jam, South India Jam, Swaraj University, and Learning societies unConference in varied capacities. She lives in Calicut, Kerala where she envisions building a youth-run community learning center.

Join a bold, new online community for anyone who cares about building more resilient, inclusive food systems.

Writer, Photographer
Shruti Tharayil
Forgotten Greens
Shruti Tharayil is a self taught herbalist founder of the initiative 'Forgotten Greens' where she shares about the fast disappearing knowledge about the wild edibles that grow in our immediate ecosystem. Along with her love for documenting, researching and eating the wild edibles, Shruti also hosts programmes such as Moonstrual Mapping, Gap Year Yatra; where she facilitates the process of inner, interpersonal and systemic inquiries for participants. Shruti has been working on building perspectives towards our complex Food System through her projects Forgotten Greens and Food Ecosystem Project. She has been associated with India Youth jam, South India Jam, Swaraj University, Learning societies unConference in varied capacities. Currently she lives in Calicut, Kerala where she envisions building a youth run community learning center.

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Eligibility, Submission Terms and Conditions

Sponsor

A Greener Blue Global Storytelling Initiative is sponsored by The Lexicon, a US based 501(c)(3) public charity.

Opportunity

Storytellers will join A Greener Blue Storytelling Collective to create stories for the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture with the FAO and its partner organizations. Members of the Collective will take part in a private online “Total Storytelling Lab” led by The Lexicon’s Douglas Gayeton. Upon completion of this online certificate program, members of the Collective will join seafood experts from around the globe in creating A Greener Blue Storytelling initiative.

Terms

Who can enter and how selections are made.

A Greener Blue is a global call to action that is open to individuals and teams from all over the world. Below is a non-exhaustive list of subjects the initiative targets.

  • Creatives and storytellers with a passion for food and the willingness to support small-scale fisherpeople and experts worldwide. This category includes, but is not exhausted in photographers, videomakers, illustrators, podcasters, and writers.
  • Food Activists working to change open sea fishing and aquaculture; 
  • Members of fishing and indigenous communities that support their communities, share their stories and protect their way of life;
  • Local and International NGOs work every day with actors across the whole value chain to create more sustainable seafood models.

To apply, prospective participants will need to fill out the form on the website, by filling out each part of it. Applications left incomplete or containing information that is not complete enough will receive a low score and have less chance of being admitted to the storytelling lab.

Nonprofit organizations, communities of fishers and fish farmers and companies that are seeking a closer partnership or special support can also apply by contacting hello@thelexicon.org and interacting with the members of our team.

Special attention will be given to the section of the form regarding the stories that the applicants want to tell and the reasons for participating. All proposals for stories regarding small-scale or artisanal fishers or aquaculturists, communities of artisanal fishers or aquaculturists, and workers in different steps of the seafood value chain will be considered.

Stories should show the important role that these figures play in building a more sustainable seafood system. To help with this narrative, the initiative has identified 10 principles that define a more sustainable seafood system. These can be viewed on the initiative’s website and they state:
Seafood is sustainable when:

  • it helps address climate change
  • it supports global ecosystems
  • it optimizes impact on resources and nutrient cycles.
  • it promotes a safe growing environment for safe food sources.
  • it advances animal welfare.
  • it enhances flavor and nutrition.
  • it builds resilience and self-sufficiency in local communities.
  • it prioritizes inclusion, equality, and fair treatment of workers.
  • it preserves legality and the quality and the story of the product throughout the value chain.
  • it creates opportunities along the whole value chain.

Proposed stories should show one or more of these principles in practice.

Applications are open from the 28th of June to the 15th of August 2022. There will be 50 selected applicants who will be granted access to The Lexicon’s Total Storytelling Lab. These 50 applicants will be asked to accept and sign a learning agreement and acceptance of participation document with which they agree to respect The Lexicon’s code of conduct.

The first part of the lab will take place online between August the 22nd and August the 26th and focus on training participants on the foundation of storytelling, supporting them to create a production plan, and aligning all of them around a shared vision.

Based on their motivation, quality of the story, geography, and participation in the online Lab, a selected group of participants will be gifted a GoPro camera offered to the program by GoPro For A Change. Participants who are selected to receive the GoPro camera will need to sign an acceptance and usage agreement.

The second part of the Storytelling Lab will consist of a production period in which each participant will be supported in the production of their own story. This period goes from August 26th to October 13th. Each participant will have the opportunity to access special mentorship from an international network of storytellers and seafood experts who will help them build their story. The Lexicon also provides editors, animators, and graphic designers to support participants with more technical skills.

The final deadline to submit the stories is the 14th of October. Participants will be able to both submit complete edited stories, or footage accompanied by a storyboard to be assembled by The Lexicon’s team.

All applicants who will exhibit conduct and behavior that is contrary to The Lexicon’s code of conduct will be automatically disqualified. This includes applicants proposing stories that openly discriminate against a social or ethnic group, advocate for a political group, incite violence against any group, or incite to commit crimes of any kind.

All submissions must be the entrant’s original work. Submissions must not infringe upon the trademark, copyright, moral rights, intellectual rights, or rights of privacy of any entity or person.

Participants will retain the copyrights to their work while also granting access to The Lexicon and the other partners of the initiative to share their contributions as part of A Greener Blue Global Storytelling Initiative.

If a potential selected applicant cannot be reached by the team of the Initiative within three (3) working days, using the contact information provided at the time of entry, or if the communication is returned as undeliverable, that potential participant shall forfeit.

Offering

Selected applicants will be granted access to an advanced Storytelling Lab taught and facilitated by Douglas Gayeton, award-winning storyteller and information architect, co-founder of The Lexicon. In this course, participants will learn new techniques that will improve their storytelling skills and be able to better communicate their work with a global audience. This skill includes (but is not limited to) how to build a production plan for a documentary, how to find and interact with subjects, and how to shoot a short documentary.

Twenty of the participants will receive a GoPro Hero 11 Digital Video and Audio Cameras by September 15, 2022. Additional participants may receive GoPro Digital Video and Audio Cameras to be announced at a later date. The recipients will be selected by advisors to the program and will be based on selection criteria (see below) on proposals by Storytelling Lab participants. The selections will keep in accordance with Lab criteria concerning geography, active participation in the Storytelling Lab and commitment to the creation of a story for the Initiative, a GoPro Camera to use to complete the storytelling lab and document their story. These recipients will be asked to sign an acceptance letter with terms of use and condition to receive the camera. 

The Lexicon provides video editors, graphic designers, and animators to support the participants to complete their stories.

The submitted stories will be showcased during international and local events, starting from the closing event of the International Year of Fisheries and Aquaculture 2022 in Rome, in January 2023. The authors of the stories will be credited and may be invited to join.

All selection criteria

Storytelling lab participation:

Applicants that will be granted access to the storytelling Lab will be evaluated based on the entries they provided in the online form, and in particular:

  • The completeness of their form
  • The relevance of their story (coherence with the main goal of the initiative and 10 principles)
  • Written motivation explained
  • Geography (the initiative aims at showcasing stories from all over the world so the mix of locations will be a factor that the selection committee will take into account)
 

Applications will be evaluated by a team of 4 judges from The Lexicon, GSSI and the team of IYAFA (Selection committee).

When selecting applications, the call promoters may request additional documentation or interviews both for the purpose of verifying compliance with eligibility requirements and to facilitate proposal evaluation.

Camera recipients:

Participants to the Storytelling Lab who will be given a GoPro camera will be selected based on:

  • Quality of the story (coherence with the initiative and the 10 principles)
  • Motivation demonstrated during the interaction in the online class
  • Participation in the online class (participants that will attend less than 4 classes will be automatically excluded)
 

The evaluation will be carried out by a team of 4 judges from The Lexicon, GSSI and the team of IYAFA (Selection committee).

Incidental expenses and all other costs and expenses which are not specifically listed in these Official Rules but which may be associated with the acceptance, receipt and use of the Storytelling Lab and the camera are solely the responsibility of the respective participants and are not covered by The Lexicon or any of the A Greener Blue partners.

All participants who receive a Camera are required to sign an agreement allowing GoPro for a Cause, The Lexicon and GSSI to utilize the films for A Greener Blue and their promotional purposes. All participants will be required to an agreement to upload their footage into the shared drive of The Lexicon and make the stories, films and images available for The Lexicon and the promoting partners of A Greener Blue.

Additional Limitations

Selection and distribution of the camera is non-transferable. No substitution or cash equivalent of the cameras is granted. The Lexicon and its respective partners and representatives are not responsible for any typographical or other errors in the offer or administration of the Initiative, including, but not limited to, errors in any printing or posting or the Official Rules, the selection and announcement of any selected participant, or the distribution of any equipment. Any attempt to damage the content or operation of this Initiative is unlawful and subject to possible legal action by The Lexicon. The Lexicon reserves the right to terminate, suspend or amend the Initiative, without notice, and for any reason, including, without limitation, if The Lexicon determines that the Lab cannot be conducted as planned or should a virus, bug, tampering or unauthorized intervention, technical failure or other cause beyond The Lexicon’s control corrupt the administration, security, fairness, integrity or proper play of the Contest. In the event any tampering or unauthorized intervention may have occurred, The Lexicon reserves the right to void suspect entries at issue.